I recall going to a bookstore named Manneys in Pune sometine in the mid 90’s. The bookstore closed down in March 2012, but in the 90’s it was the go-to store if you wanted the latest english book from a famous author or like me, you wanted to ogle at comic books. From Superman, Batman and even The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Manneys was the place to be. It was also the era when all these characters were on TV as Saturday morning cartoons. In the fantasy world of these fabulous superheroes, one caught my eye. The story of a boy, flawed, bullied, strapped for money and generally ignored in the world. This boy was bitten by a radioactive spider and, well you know the rest. Spider-Man was one of my favourite heroes growing up. At that young age, you don’t really think about the effort that goes into making a comic book or a cartoon. The flips, the swings, the jabs, the emotions, the picture that tells a thousand words before you reach the text bubble. It is the artists that capture these unspoken emotions that drive you to move from one square to the next. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the men that made my favourite iconic superhero more desirable. Not only that, he is also responsible for the creation of one of the best anti heroes in comic books - Venom. His name is Todd McFarlane
Where did his journey start? Well like any young, aspiring professional wanting to make his mark on the industry Todd’s story started with persistence. Todd told me that he sent out a whopping 700 samples of his art work in the hope that at least one of the comic books publishers would give him a chance, a foot in the door opportunity if you will, to a career he dreamed of. “When I was trying to break into comic books it took me about 3-4 years and I sent out over 700 samples over 3-4 years. Got over 300 rejections. 300! Everyone of these letters (rejections) would say ‘stop Todd, quit’. I was stubborn enough to go NO. In hindsight they were right. All 300 were right. When I look at my samples today I wouldn't have hired me. But when I was young I didn't know that,” Todd said describing the early days of his career. Each rejection only motivated him to work harder on his art in a bid to improve himself up untill he got his first break.
If you are one that liked the big eyes of Spider-Man, or the thick webs he conjured or even the signature upside down pose, you have Todd to thank for that. But his journey into evolving one of the most famous comic book characters wasn’t easy. Infact, if you think Spider-Man had it tough juggling the life of Peter Parker and the web slinger, Todd had an even tougher time bringing his vision of Spider-Man to the pages of the comics we love. As a young artist, Todd wanted to make his mark on the industry. He wanted to make himself relevant. In a business where hundreds of artists are drawing, Todd wanted to stand out. “So everytime I took over a character, I tried to do my little Todd thing. Not because I intentionally wanted to try and change the character, but because I knew the job is me sitting alone in a room for 10 hours, 12 hours everyday and if you aren’t enjoying what you are drawing, then the work can be very hard. But if you are enjoying it, then it is easier to get the work done. And so everytime I took over a character I’d go over what would be fun,” he told Digit.in.
Putting his passion onto paper, Todd took to drawing the web slinger when Spider-Man wasn’t in the top 10 or 20 comics. Spiderman needed a rehaul and Todd was the artist assigned the role to bring Spidey back to the mantle.
Before Todd, the emphasis was always on the Man in Spider-Man. Todd changed that and made the eyes big and made Spider-Man acrobatic, with some fantastic poses and cooler spaghetti style webs. Todd told me that his editor was so mad at him for bringing about these changes that in his anger, he said that the webbing resembled Spaghetti and that is how eventually the iconic webbing was deemed Spaghetti webbing. All Todd wanted to do was make Spider-Man cooler and more superhero-like, and in doing so, he created one of the most iconic villains a superhero needs - Venom!
"Your hero is only as good as the bad guy"
Venom as a character is very interesting. He is the one you love to hate, yet empathise with. You want Eddie Brock to not get the girl, yet feel sorry for him. Venom invoked the perfect emotion in the Spider-Man comics and cartoons I was exposed to. He intimidated Spider-Man in a fight. He made silly jokes. He mimicked Spider-Man's abilities and used them against the web slinger. And at times, he stood by the web crawler as well. So what is the story behind the antihero?
At the beginning, Venom was just another Villain in the Spider-Man comics. Todd essentially wanted to get rid of Spider-Man’s black costume and in doing so created the character Venom. He said, “If we were going to put it (the black costume) on another character, then I wanted that character to be a villain. We wanted him (Venom) to be imposing to somebody like Spider-Man. Your hero is only as good as the bad guy and all of a sudden, not only was Venom a cool bad guy but he actually became a tough bad guy. And everytime we put him in the comic book we got more mail.”
The idea of Venom being on the side of both good and bad was very interesting in a time when superhero villains were just bad guys. Today we see a lot of logical motivation behind villains. Thanos wants to maintain the balance between the population and the natural resources. The Punisher wants revenge and will do whatever is necessary. The creators behind Venom understood this before it became a phenomenon with superhero villains. Eddie Brock wasn’t a good guy, but he wasn’t bad either. He was flawed, he wanted revenge and he was willing to cross the line and do what was necessary. He wanted the girl, he wanted the job, he wanted to put Peter Parker down to satisfy his ego - Eddie was human.
"You don’t do something and 10 years later go like they better do it the way I think they should do it"
There is a famous saying which goes - "The only thing constant in life is change". Spider-Man as a character has evolved and changed in many ways. From something as simple as being bitten by a genetically mutated spider instead of a radioactive spider, to more drastic changes like Peter Parker isn’t spiderman but someone else is. Creators often have an opinion when their works is taken upon and given a twist. In the Venom movie, the origin of the character is changed completely. The Symbiote hasn’t even come in contact with Spider-Man, doesn’t have the white symbol on his chest and Eddie Brock doesn’t even know Peter Parker. Speaking about how he sees his work reflected in today's world, Todd said, “You don’t do something and 10 years later go like ‘they better do it the way I think they should do it’. No company, no other creator ows any obligations to another creative person when they are trying to do their version of the same thing.”
He told me that as a creator, he is curious how others are going to tackle the stories and the visual look of Venom. Every now and then he will see something, the seeds of which were sown by him as an artist and David as a storyteller. He says he enjoys watching the evolution. According to Todd, the life of a character like Venom is a big canvas and he was there on day 1. However, there have been plenty of other people who have better drawings than him and have told better stories than David, and all this wouldn't exist if Todd and David hadn’t laid the foundation.
Pioneering something and watching it grow is a very satisfying feeling. Todd left Marvel to form his own publication Image Comics and one of the most popular characters from his new venture was Spawn. We’ll tell the Spawn story when the rumoured movie becomes a reality. However, we asked Todd about going the entrepreneurial way. Put simply, he was frustrated from a creative point of view. He says he was doing a great job and selling more comic books than anyone else in the company, however his efforts were not good enough for the management. Todd said, “Just from a creative view, it can get frustrating. So for me, I got frustrated doing what I thought I was going to do which is sell comic books and doing it better than anybody they had employed for most of the time I was there and it still didn’t seem good enough for them because artistically the didn’t necessarily like what I was doing. So after a while I thought it would be best for me and my personal to just leave and I was lucky enough that six of us decided to band together and go start our own company.”
The co-creator of Venom has as interesting a story as the comics he draws. If you missed Venom in the theatres, you can catch it on Hooq in January. On the subscription service, the movie is available along with extra behind the scenes footage and a look at the history of Venom.
Images Courtesy:Todd McFarlane